Too Little Fat Can Be a Big Cycling Problem

Don’t make the same BIG Fat mistake I made! Avoid Low-Fat Diet Risk for Cyclists!

“He’s not starving. He’s a cyclist,” was the answer my family doctor gave the alarmed radiologist when he called with the news of my abdominal scan. My stomach had been acting up, so she ordered the test to rule out serious issues. I’m sure she didn’t expect this, but she wasn’t surprised.


Under findings, Bowel, it read: Decreased sensitivity for a full evaluation of the bowel secondary to lack of visceral fat, with a significant impression of minimal subcutaneous fat. 


The radiologist reading the scan told my doctor he’d rarely seen a scan like mine and wanted her to know. My doctor is an endurance athlete who knows me, which tempered the reaction. Nonetheless, it was a wake-up call. If an amateur cyclist like me could present this way, how about the others I race with or who compete at higher levels?

Low-Fat Diet Risk For Cyclists

An Unhealthy Relationship With Fat

My strained relationship with fat—food in general—began in junior high school when, in a formidable attempt to transform my lifestyle towards health and fitness, I picked up a copy of “Eat To Win” by Dr. Robert Haas (Great book! It’s not his fault!). I poured over the pages, word for word, and in my tunnel view, one key takeaway stuck with me. 


Fat is the enemy of health and athletic success, and I must avoid it at all costs. In addition to the negative stigma that surrounded me in the media at the time, it was a numbers game—fat has five more calories per gram than carbs and protein. I could eat double the amount of the latter two.


As I tend to do, the tenet morphed into a compulsion, and I systematically rid my diet of fat and my home of anything that had fat in it. I got lean and looked good, I felt okay, and all was good in my inadequately educated mind. It wasn’t until much later in life that it became clear that it wasn’t.

What is Fat, and What Does it Do That’s So Great?

To understand its importance, we need to know a bit more about it. In basic chemical terms, fats are long-chain molecules that store energy. We convert excess calories from the food we eat into fat reserves composed of cells called adipocytes.


Individual adipocytes swell and shrink as necessary, and multiple cells together form adipose tissue. These fat deposits are beneath our skin and in the recesses between our organs and have several significant roles beyond simply storing energy, including:

  • Insulating us from the cold and fluctuating temperatures.
  • Cushioning our joints, the soles of our feet, our palms, and other bony prominences from impact.
  • Helping to hold our organs in place.
  • The supply of blood vessels and nerves produces many hormones.
  • Communicating energy levels to regulate digestion, appetite, and behavior with our brains.


The fat in our bodies consists of two primary types—White and Brown. White adipocytes (adipose tissue IS fat—adipocytes are fat cells) mainly store fat and contain specialized immune cells with past infection-fighting properties.


Brown cells are rich with mitochondria and tiny fat droplets, and their appearance derives from the energy conversion that drives our metabolism, movement, and body heat. 


We accumulate and grow fat cells as we mature, and the number of cells doesn’t change in adult life, regardless of diet or exercise. Adipocytes can expand and contract, dependent on energy availability, but getting rid of them once you have them is impossible.

Despite being distributed throughout the body, the growing thought among experts is that adipose tissue is a body organ because it plays an essential role in influencing energy requirements and coordinating metabolism.

Although fats have more calories than carbohydrates and protein, they are slower to oxidize, making them essential slow burners during steady-state exercise.

Low-Fat Diet Risk For Cyclists in a group riding on the road
That's me fourth from the right in the yellow jersey. The definition and mass in my legs were still there.

The Risks of Having Too Little Fat

The adverse health consequences of excessive fat and obesity are a worldwide epidemic that no one should ignore. Extreme diets of fewer than 10 percent of calories from fat have equally disastrous long-term effects, and endurance athletes are at high-risk.


Fat is an essential macronutrient responsible for countless bodily functions. When we don’t have enough, it wreaks havoc on our bodies and causes detrimental long and short-term effects. According to exercise metabolism expert Dr. Adam Upshaw, fat is vital to everyone.

“The idea of good vs. bad fats is a little misnomer. We should regularly consume nutritious fats for proper cellular function and structure, energy, hormonal processes, and transport of vitamins, among others. For cyclists, specifically, dietary fat contributes total caloric consumption and thus helps maintain proper body weight.”

Too little dietary fat can leave you tired and hungry, cause you to lose hair and dry skin, be in a fog, have achy joints, and get sick more often. Suppose you don’t eat enough fat to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. In that case, the adverse health effects are dire, including vision deficits, low bone density, fractures, diminished immune response, muscle and nerve damage, and significant bleeding and bruising.

“Adipose tissue is necessary for fuel optimization, thermoregulation, immunity, and other vital functions for everyone. Too much fatty tissue increases body weight, possibly negatively impacting cycling performance. Too little adipose tissue may compromise proper fuel utilization during athletic performance,” notes Dr. Upshaw.

Low-Fat Diet Risk For Cyclists Chris Schwenker
As I got leaner the muscle mass left.

How Much is The Right Amount?

It depends upon the cyclists’ goals, according to Dr. Upshaw. “If one is cycling primarily for body composition changes, nutritious fats can make up anywhere between 30-50% of one’s diet. For the well-trained competitive cyclist closely monitoring their total kcal intake, a large percentage of fat may comprise other macronutrient intakes. For example, too much fat may compromise one’s ability to attain optimal carbohydrate and protein intake for maximum performance and recovery.”


Although he quickly points out that it’s difficult to define optimal and individual to the athlete, “Generally for a biological male elite endurance athlete, a body fat percentage between 5 and low teens would be considered average. Mid to high teens to low 20s for biological female athletes.”

motorcycle in front of a group of cyclists
I made the final group of several challenging hilly New England (Tokeneke Classic pictured) Road Races but never climbed the top step of the podium again.


Do I have evidence that eating too little fat or being excessively lean was the root of any health or performance issues? Well, kind of. I could check several, if not all, of the boxes above over my cycling years, but I can put my finger on one thing in particular.

I won only one “Big” race in my life, and it came early in my amateur career when my body weight and fat percentages were at their peak. In an ill-advised attempt to achieve marginal gains, I became increasingly strict with my diet, specifically fat. I came close a few times but never reached the podium’s top step again in such a dominant fashion. My health gradually deteriorated, despite my attempts to rationalize it away, and so did my performance. It took years to climb out of the hole I dug myself.

Anecdotally, since I’ve committed to sensible fat intake, I’ve felt better, and my performance has improved. I rode 3,900 miles across the country in the Summer of 2022 and didn’t come near bonking–not once. There is storage in my batteries now. Don’t make the same BIG FAT mistake I made. 

Your Thoughts?

Did you have an unhealthy relationship with fat? What did you do about it? Comment below! Your fellow virtual cyclists want to know.

To subscribe to the Zommunique and receive more informative and entertaining articles like this one sent directly to your inbox, click here!

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
8 months ago

What type of fat are you talking about? Meat, dairy, fish, vegetable oil?

Do you not eat icecream?

Joseph Chudyk
Joseph Chudyk
8 months ago

I 1000% disagree. While maintaining a low fat diet, it’s important to increase the carbs. For me that’s over 1000 calories of carbs a day above what I’ve burned through activity and daily function. I have never felt leaner, fitter and stronger. The power in the legs is plentiful and I don’t gain the weight in the extra calories. I’ve actually lost weight and become leaner. There are lots of scientific studies done where increasing carbs and lowering fat is immensely beneficial. But not if you restrict calories. There is a fine balance but I think this article is misrepresented. Fuck ice cream 🙂

Do you want to join the VVN team? Tap the logo for details!

Virtual Velo Podcast Ep. 34-WTRLs Martin Carew Talks Zwift Racing League
Check out Episode Thirty four here!

The Zommunique’ Community gets 10% off at with coupon code “TheZomm gives 10% off”   

Click to get your Zwift Hub smart trainer here and support our work.

Broadcast Partner to The Virtual Velo Network!

The DIRT Dad Fund

Contribute to a great cause!

The DIRT Dad Fund

Share the power of The DIRT Effect

Click to get the Zwift Cog & Click!

Jaclyn Long, MFT

Certified Yoga & Mindfulness Teacher

Marriage & Family Therapist in CA

Sports Anxiety Therapy

Purchase your Zwift Play controllers here!

Drink Coffee and Do Good!  

Click the Image and Shop now!

Related Articles

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x